Foodie Talk: Jason Moniz
New Table 24 chef talks about cooking in the suburbs and his ambitious plans for upcoming Barbacoa Mexican restaurant.
Jason Moniz has an impressive culinary resume. He was the opening day chef at several well-respected restaurants including Flora in Oakland, and Tres Agaves and Locavore in San Francisco. Now, owners Michael Karp and Victor Ivry have brought Moniz in as the new executive chef at their Table 24 in Orinda, as well as the upcoming Barbacoa set to debut in late May. I caught up with Moniz during his break at Table 24.
Diablo: What’s your background?
Jason Moniz: I’ve been cooking in the Bay Area since the mid-90s. I've opened up a bunch of restaurants: Café Marimbas way back in the day out on Chestnut Street, which is now Mamacita, and then I helped open up the Burlingame Marimbas. Then I was sous chef at Alta Plaza, a great old place. From there I got into opening Tres Agaves in San Francisco, I was the opening chef there and helped draw up the blue prints for that. Then I helped the guys in Nectar wine group in Napa open a bunch of restaurants. I was the opening chef at Flora out here in Oakland and was there for a couple years. Then I opened my own restaurant with a couple of partners in San Francisco called Locavore, and I was also cooking at St. Anthony’s foundation for the homeless. And now here.
What drew you out here?
I think it was an interesting opportunity. I like the idea of having this small community and trying to cater to that and learn. It’s actually a challenge for me. I didn’t think it would be, but in the city, it was so easy to come up with whatever I want to make and it would sell. But out here, it’s kind of a different thing. I have to be really conscientious about what these folks want to eat out here: they have a very set idea of what they want. They can go out to the city if they want crazy food, but I don’t think they want that here. It’s a little safer. So that’s been a challenge for me to kind of temper my style and get myself into their good graces.
And it’s going: it’s still a little bit of a bumpy road where sometimes I’m trying to push my ideas on them, and they push back. But it’s all working out. I realize what direction I want to go. It’s been a great challenge for me to come out here and learn a different style and different techniques. Here, they want to come in and get a good burger, a great chicken sandwich. And when I started writing a menu for this place it was so Oakland/San Francisco, and now I’m doing stuff like spaghetti and meatballs because it makes sense and people want that. I’m actually kicking myself for not putting a meatloaf on the menu—that will probably go on there next time. So the menu is evolving and every time, I’m getting a little closer to what these folks want. That’s my goal, where every dish is just solid.
That’s not to say we’re not going to still take risks, because if you can just get a couple people to try some things, then they can take off. But for me, I’ve been cooking for 22, 23 years and early on it was super ego-driven, it was my way or the highway. But over the last few years I’ve come to realize that the customer base is the most important thing. For me, I’ve done all the things I’ve needed to do—Michael Bauer has written me up, I’ve gotten really nice accolades—and I kind of don’t need that anymore. I just want to make people happy and see return customers and build a solid foundation where people realize they can always come here and get consistently good food. That’s my goal.
That’s the nice thing about a place like Table 24, right? You get more regulars and neighborhood folks than in Oakland or San Francisco.
Yes. I mean I’ve met so many people and it’s great, on both sides. They’re definitely not afraid to give me their opinion: They’ll come up to me and tell me ‘Hey, don’t do that anymore.’ And that’s cool, I can appreciate that. As long as you can let it roll off your back and take it for what it is, it's good. People are allowed to have their opinions and I listen to them, and just try to use them to help make the food better.
You have a higher end background: how are you applying that to the menu here?
It's true that most of the restaurants that I came from are higher-end as far as what they try to be, but my style of food and what I’ve always tried to do is much more simple. Less is more, good ingredients, well-seasoned. I’m applying my own technique to it, which I think is really the key: it’s more about good technique, and I have good technique.
Tell me about some of the new menu items that you’re excited about.
What I’m most excited about right now is what we’re doing with our fish. We getting everything whole and breaking it down ourselves so we can really control the quality of the fish that comes in. Because so many times, you order fillets and you just get what the company sends you. So that’s really exciting to me, the change in how we’re using out product and what we’re doing with it.
Another thing that we've done is simplify some things in the kitchen. There were so many heavy things going on before which I wanted to get away from. And just streamlined some things, like lighter vinaigrettes, not so much egg and cream going on—just a little lighter. One of the other things I’m really excited about is we cure our own pancetta for the pizzas, we brine our own corn beef for the Reuben, we make our own sauerkraut, we make our own English muffins: we try to make everything in-house. That makes it a lot of fun. And I really like what we’re doing with the pizzas now: we’ve played around with the dough and the consistency.
Tell me about the upcoming Barbacoa menu?
That’s super exciting, and that was one of the big draws to come here because Mexican food is such a passion of mine. What I’m trying to do with the menu, and obviously its still in the planning stages, is to try to reflect all of Mexico. Whereas Tres Agaves was more of this regional, Central Mexican food mostly based in Jalisco, what I’m trying to do here is represent the whole country. Because other than barbacoa, which is represented throughout Mexico—they all have different styles of barbacoa—I’m trying to bring it all together in one place and give good representations of the different regions.
I’ve traveled throughout Mexico pretty extensively at different times, so I have a good idea of what’s going on down there right now. And I’m more into the idea of their street food: that’s what I want it to be, without it being called street food. I don’t think I’ve eaten at a restaurant in Mexico when I go down there, I eat in the street and that’s what I want the food to reflect. There’s some places opening up now that are doing a real fusion style, which is okay, but I feel there are very few real Mexican restaurants in the Bay Area. There are a lot of restaurants that call themselves Mexican that are 70 percent Mexican and 30 percent something else. Like even Dona Tomas and similar places, which are great, but they’re not necessarily the most authentic Mexican.
So my goal is to be the most authentic Mexican restaurant in the Bay Area—but not to necessarily tell people that because it might freak people out who think there’s going to be pig stomachs on the menu. That’s not what I’m going for, I’m still going for regular carne asada taco—but I’m trying to do it the right way, use all the right herbs. Like if you go to Mexico, you don’t get the super taco, they don’t make them there, they look at you funny if you ask for sour cream on your taco. That’s sort of the style of Mexican food that I like and that I know: I’m not good at mixing cuisines, I’m not good at that fusion stuff. For me, it’s one or the other and Mexican food is going to be Mexican food.
I’d like to be able to do some other cuisine form Latin America but doing it as specials, maybe doing a week of all Cuban specials. But for the most part its going to be as authentic as we can make it.
And a lot of what you call street food, is actually pretty simple, straightforward food, right?
That’s the idea. We’ll have to have some of those bigger plates, people are going to want to have the rice and beans and enchiladas. Which is great, we’ll have those, but the bulk of the menu will be a la carte, smaller plates. A lot of tacos, very simply done, al pastor, onions, cilantro, maybe a little queso, but very simple, very straightforward, like what you would get in Mexico. But what we’re also trying to do is bring some of that Northern California sensibility to it, using higher quality product, a little more seasonal.
Will you have burritos?
I would like to not have burritos. We’ve talked about that a lot and we may need to go there depending on what the feedback is. But if we are going to do burritos, we’ve talked about doing some out-the-door stuff that’s sort of pre-made that you can take to go. And we’ll probably have them on the kids menu, but maybe not on the regular menu that you get at the table. Hopefully we’ll be able to steer guests away from that just by producing other great food. And we’re not doing anything crazy, it’s all really accessible stuff: I think Mexican food is very accessible.
How about the barbacoa?
The kitchen is anchored by a six-foot, wood burning charbroiler. So the barbacoa itself will get that really good grilled wood flavor. We’ll probably do two or three barbacoas. And what that typically is in Mexico is meat that’s marinated pretty heavily in a banana leaf and then buried in the coals like a pig in Hawaii is done. We’ll do a couple of those: probably lamb and something like cochinita pibil. We’ll also be trying to use whole animals, because it’s a way you can really control the quality. We’ll also be doing a lot of rotisserie, like whole chickens and I’ve been thinking about doing a sort of rotisserie rib, like baby back ribs wrapped with banana leafs.
We’ll take some risks on the specials, like I’d love to do a birria, a goat, or buche, which is pig stomach. I would love to try those things, and if people try them, I think it would blow their mind. So we’ll definitely take challenges and see how it goes. Like I said, I’m open to feedback. At this point, it’s just fun to see people happy. I just love to see food go out when I’ve made it and see someone eat it: the smile on their face is all I really need.
You sound excited about opening the new restaurant...
I'm very excited, I think it's a great opportunity for myself and for Orinda. I want to have the best Mexican restaurant in the Bay Area. My goal is to have the best Mexican food, period, I want San Francisco, Oakland, to all pay attention to Orinda. I want to put it on the map as a dining destination. I think the food will speak for itself and I'm very confident in my ability to produce good Mexican food, and I think my ability is as good as any in the city. I've traveled to Mexico many times, cooked with some of the best Mexican chefs. It's what i do, it's what I know.
What are some of your favorite East Bay restaurants?
I definitely love the Boot & Shoe Service, I love Pizzaiolo as well. As far as Mexican restaurants go, I love Tacubaya in Berkeley. I like Flora, I love Hawker Fare and what they’re doing there. Commis is great for what it is. I like Bellanico for Italian food, and I love Adesso and Dopo is probably my favorite place for Italian food. And I love taco trucks, I go to a lot of taco trucks in the East Bay.